The Root of the Problem

Jamestown gave birth to a contradiction--a democracy that was committed to slavery

Library of Congress

Woodcut of shackled slave, kneeling with Am I not a man and a brother? written on a scroll under him. The design was originally adopted as the seal of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery in England in the 1780s.

Less than a dozen years after the founding of Jamestown, about 20 Africans from what is now Angola were sold to settlers of the fledgling colony. They found themselves in a raw, chaotic frontier society in which the English settlers were still trying to figure out the best way to survive and turn a profit.

In this unsettled, formative phase, the Africans worked side by side with white indentured servants whose physical hardships and treatment were largely similar to their own. Too much has been made of the fact that manumission, the formal emancipation from slavery, was open to the most...

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